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Consider the Turkey

» November 27th, 2014

Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.

The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.

Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.

“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”

I’m well aware that most readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer.At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.

But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”

Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.

Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.

There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?

I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.

Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

Cutting Through The Fat

» November 21st, 2014

Food writers behave like a school of fish. The arrange themselves into a tight pack and swerve in unison, seeking safety in numbers. The newest bait is the idea that our food problems are not really food problems. They are poverty problems. I include myself in this school—note a recent column—and I join a pool of writers including Bittman and Tracie McMillian in highlighting the pressure of poverty on food choices.

And why not? There’s no doubt there’s a good reason to pursue the connection between poverty and poor eating habits. The correlation is clear and the reasons for the correlation fairly obvious, involving as it does matters of access, affordability, education, and—perhaps less obviously—a factor noted by both me and McMillian (see links above): the psychological consequences of scarcity.

That said, something about this emphasis makes me a little uncomfortable. The reason for this discomfort was recently clarified for me when I encountered the above menu in a trendy new Austin eating establishment. Click it and you’ll see that these meals are fancy. But they’re also weighed down with loads of carefully sourced but, still, unhealthy ingredients. The portion sizes, moreover, judging from the dishes being hauled out of the kitchen, were huge.  Is there, I wondered, that much of a difference between a McDonald’s menu and this one? Every plate seemed to me to far outweigh (literally) my ideal meal as a teenager: Big Mac, shake, and fries.

By the looks of the place, the comparison might seem absurd. This is an upscale, architecturally-savvy lunch spot. Business casual dominated. Elegant women drank chardonnay. As I looked closer, though, I noticed that, while there were no morbidly obese people in the place, at least 2/3 of the people in the restaurant were carrying extra weight, in some cases a lot. Take away the sheen of sophistication, strip these well-heeled lunch goers bare, and you’d pretty much have a naked reflection of our national struggle to stay fit.

Heavy and unhealthy high-end food often gets a pass when the obesity-poverty card is played. I don’t think it should. The overweight people in this restaurant—it’s called St. Phillip for those who care (good veganized pie)—were overweight in the same way that the low-income consumers of fast food are overweight. Fat is fat and flesh is flesh. Should the fact that the St. Phillip’s crowd was better dressed, had top-notch health care, and can get thee to a fat farm if matters get out of hand exclude them from our meta-analysis of poor eating habits?

I don’t think it should.  I’m not saying anyone should ditch the correlation between obesity and poverty, but I am saying we need to remember that as much as poverty leads to obesity, wealth can cover it up pretty well. Both a Big Mac and a $20 plate of homemade gourmet mac-n-cheese have the same impact on your body, at the day’s end.

Food Snobbery

» November 19th, 2014

Isn’t the fact that foodies feel compelled to write articles advising tribe members how not to sound snobby evidence that they are ipso facto snobs? I guess you could answer this question in the negative, suggesting that foodies get a bad rap, with their zeal for revitalized soil and apples picked by virgins being mistaken for elitism rather than plain old childlike enthusiasm.

But if the most recent investigation into how to “geek out over food without sounding like a snob” is any indication, I think there’s little doubt that foodies should dismiss all egalitarian pretenses and just own it: when it comes to the rarified pleasures of the palate, they’re better than us.

The author of this piece turned to her friends in the foodie trenches and asked them how to handle the ubiquitous snob label. Here are some samples of the answers (followed by a little commentary):

Kat Kinsman: “Why would you rob someone of their joy? Even if it’s not your bag, step outside of yourself for a second and ask them what it is that makes them love this particular ingredient, dish, restaurant, cuisine. You get to learn a little something about it and the person who loves it, and you get a chance to not make the world suck a little more for them.”

Commentary: I do step outside myself all the time, and I ask: why will this person eat broccoli that’s only locally grown and heirloom? And my answer is that, “she’s just engaging in the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, being a snob. And that doesn’t make the world suck for her. Hardly. Snobs LIKE being snobs.

Helen Rosner: “The only thing worse than actually writing or saying toothsome is being that jackass who points out that the word actually means “delicious,” not “al dente.”

Commentary: Isn’t this just an indirect way of being a snob while saying that you’re not? I mean, didn’t she just write “toothsome”?

Twilight Greenaway: “I eat a lot of mediocre homemade food when it’s served to me, because I believe that the intent behind sharing and cooking food comes first, and if people are made to feel comfortable doing it in the first place, then they might eventually seek out ways to use better ingredients/make it taste delicious.”

Commentary: Got it. So in fact there’s nothing snobby about nobly supping on mediocre food with the masses with the intention of curing them of their pedestrian palates in the long run. Culinary noblesse oblige? It lives.

Twilight Greenaway (again): “We might not all be able to eat at the next big restaurant, but most of us can learn to make a really amazing fritatta at home.” Commentary: Oh, super. Maybe we could even make that fritatta with leftovers from your latest big restaurant adventure? Pretty please?

Adam Roberts: “The key to not sounding like a food snob is acknowledging that food isn’t everyone’s thing; just like fashion isn’t everyone’s thing. If you don’t judge me for wearing old white socks with holes in them, I won’t judge you for eating that cheese sandwich from the gas station—even though it has mold on it and, really, who eats a cheese sandwich from the gas station?”

Commentary: none needed, really.

Cathy Erway: Whenever a food or ingredient that sounds esoteric comes up, I like to bring it back to my experience with handling it for the first time. Something like, yeah, and sunchokes are really sweet and less starchy than potatoes, so they make a really nice, golden crust when you roast them in no time!

Commentary: what am I, 5 years-old?

It’s pretty funny, all of this. But if these folks really want to purge the snobbery from their system they should have a conference at a Marriott and eat rubber chicken, lumpy potatoes, and canned vegetables. Oh wait, Bittman already squashed that idea. Last week, as he attended a tony foodie lovefest in up-the-Hudson-somewhere New York, he was asked by a reporter about the lavish accommodations and the $1400 ticket price to attend. Bittman answered:

“So what—we all meet in a Marriott?”

The Foodie’s Equivalent of Clean Coal

» November 13th, 2014

Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.

The Food Movement’s defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming’s future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement’s idealized future there’s no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.

This goal is appropriately righteous—eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture—and it’s one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position—a much more problematic one—that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.

Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like “asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic”—forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.

Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer—you and me—while the other falls on the producer—faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we’ll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It’s a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.

Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product—namely, they say they are “sequestering carbon”—is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef—they say, alas, that they are “sequestering carbon.”  But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?

 

Cowspiracy And Beyond

» November 12th, 2014

The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message—that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture—is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we’re saving a dying planet?

Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world’s largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization’s defining platform. But it’s not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I’m proud to have that film on my side.

In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors—Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson—have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the “sustainable” food movement’s effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It’s a shame, really.

Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There’s no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action—eliminating animals from agriculture—in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.

It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it’s extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.

The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised—even Joel Salatin, the guru, can’t do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren’t allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they’re “harvested” about 1/5th of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals—they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.

How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I’d love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?

Bad Will Hunting

» November 9th, 2014

This post belongs in the “no, it’s not the Onion” section. I’m referring to a piece published in the Times about raising and releasing Chinese ring-necked pheasants into Utah for the purposes of ecological conservation through the fine art of hunting.

Yeah, I know, emphasis not necessary. But on reading the article, you’d think the writer, not to mention the entire state of Utah, not to mention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thought it was perfectly rational to have families raise pheasants from scratch, come to adore them, release them into the wild, and allow 13-year olds, followed adults, to chase them down and blow them to smithereens.

“It’s a little bit hard,” a woman said, as the birds were set free. “You’ve watched them grow, and they’re like part of the family now.”

Which led me to consider an interesting heuristic device to place this policy, as well as the article about it, in some sort of sane perspective. Try this: read the article while replacing every reference to pheasant with dog. You’d encounter sentences such as this:

“The family of six had been raising the [dogs] since they were fuzzy, brown, palm-size [pups], as part of a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources program designed to create a greater interest in wildlife conservation and habitat preservation and to promote the sport of upland game hunting, particularly to young and first-time hunters.”

Or this:

“People are also no longer dependent on game hunting of any kind to feed their families,” a wildlife guy said. “When I grew up hunting [dogs] in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, there were no computer games, organized sports were not nearly as involved, and most people lived in two-parent households. My dad could take a Saturday off to go hunting. That’s become more difficult now.”

Weird, right? I wonder what would have happened if the author had tried this experiment before writing this horrid piece? Might she have appreciated how arbitrary it was to nurture one sentient creature for slaughter while never even considering doing so for another? And might not this inconsistency have alerted her to the ethical atrocity that she was inadvertently endorsing by not questioning it?

Try it again with another animal, one we don’t even domesticate:

“Like many states where pheasant hunting is a beloved pastime, Utah stocks its public lands with [squirrels] each fall. For 2014, the state purchased 11,000 adult [squirrels] from commercial growers and released them on public land to stoke hunters’ enthusiasm — and odds of success.”

Weird, right? And worse.

The Modern Farmer and The (Very) Fresh Chicken

» November 6th, 2014

There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:

[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.

The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.

The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.

Big Or Small, Interest Conflicts Are Interest Conflicts

» November 4th, 2014

Scroll down and check out the list of endorsements for Nicolette Hahn Niman’s latest defense of beef production. Blurbs from Marion Nestle, Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, and Dan Barber surely must make Hahn happy. But what’s strange to me—and I’m genuinely wondering if I’m missing something obvious here—is that NHN is a rancher. My point being this: isn’t there something intellectually disingenuous about endorsing as truth a book defending beef written by a person who makes a living from what she defends? Can there be real objectivity in this arrangement?

Let’s look at it this way. Imagine if big wig representatives from the United Beef Council, National Corn Growers Association, and Dow Chemical plugged a book written by a Monsanto executive about the brilliance of GMOs. Would the likes of Nestle, Grandin, Savory, et al. take such an arrangement seriously? Do you think they’d say, “well, gee, let’s give Big Ag the benefit of the doubt and assume they can deliver an unbiased review”? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d mock the hell out of this shameless plugging. They’d call foul and take to social media and pitch a fit.

Well, if the defenders of intensively managed beef production—a principle element of the sustainable food movement—want to be taken seriously, they need to practice what they preach. Instead, they accept a double standard when they condemn every study supported by Big Ag as automatically tainted while allowing–and endorsing–a study defending ranching by a rancher.

I hope Hahn’s readers are smarter than her blurbers.

 

Consciousness

» November 1st, 2014

I just finished a challenging but deeply edifying book called Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, by Cal Tech biologist Kristof Koch.  The book is the finest example of making hard science accessible without dumbing it down that I’ve encountered in some of the modest reading I’m doing on the physical basis of consciousness. My underlying goal is to get a sense of what the most knowledgeable experts on the brain have to say about the connection between neurological sophistication and consciousness.

Koch, for one, certainly posits a correlation. He writes, “Consider simpler animals—simplicity measured by the number of neurons and their interconnections—such as mice, herrings, or flies. Their behavior is less differentiated and more stereotyped than that of dogs. It is thus not unreasonable to assume that conscious states of these animals are less rich, filled with far fewer associations and meanings, than canine consciousness.”

I know this line of thought makes some animal rights advocates, many of whom prefer to view all animal life as deserving the same moral consideration, nervous. But I like the proposition in part because neurological complexity is the same physical basis that biologists use to distinguish a category of life that we do not grant equal moral consideration:  plants. This distinction is one that animal rights advocates very much need to preserve at all costs. Consider this excellent overview of the plant/animal distinction on the basis of evolutionary cellular development by Oliver Sacks:

The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes … into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms [i.e., animals] that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.

The proposition of a continuum of consciousness based on neurological complexity does not necessarily mean that humans will use that continuum as a justification to abuse animals with nervous systems that are nominally less complex. Curious about Koch’s stance on this issue, I poked around the Web. In an interview with Scientific American, he was asked if his research influenced his own behavior. I put a fist in the air when he explained, “I have stopped eating the flesh of mammals and birds, as they too share the wonders of experience with us.”

In this respect, I think the pursuit of a physical understanding of consciousness—even if we never uncover it—can be a benefit for animals. That is, as humans begin to understand that the nature of existence originates and is sustained exclusively by measurable physical forces, the less we will seek answers to our existence and its meaning in traditional spiritual frameworks that impose unfounded hierarchies that arbitrarily favor human exceptionalism over “brute creatures.”

That catch, of course, is that to pursue the quest for consciousness, scientists seem to think that the only way to do so is to experiment on the animals their findings suggest have qualities that demand our respect and moral consideration. Therein lies a conundrum I hope to address soon.

Carol Adams

» October 25th, 2014

The author—Carol Adams— of one of my favorite books written about animals and humans—The Sexual Politics of Meat—will be speaking this Monday at Texas State University in San Marcos. The event is at 11 am and it’s free. Details here. If you’re in the area, please come. Her evolving presentation is widely recognized as a signature statement at the intersection of feminism and animal rights.